Deep within my dresser, in the third drawer from the top, lives two bras I love and wear regularly—and five others I regularly forget exist.
There’s the strapless bra I ordered online and only wore one time because I realized I would rather have my straps showing than deal with ever having a bra slide down to my waist again; the supportive nude one I ordered online and promptly realized looked like something a great-grandmother in the 1800s would wear; a couple I wore when my old birth control made my cups grow a size; and one very thin bra I can’t wear out in public when it’s cold or windy.
I’ve let those forgettable bras just live in my drawer, collecting dust. But what I should have done—and what I didn’t know I could do, and what I think should probably become an annual tradition—is donate them to a number of organizations that benefit women who have survived breast cancer, human trafficking and domestic abuse.
I had always grouped bras in with panties—you can’t donate used underwear, after all—and clearly, I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. “It’s a need that I think many people don’t realize,” explained Elaine Birks-Mitchell of The Bra Recyclers LLC, a company that sends the usable bras it gets to women’s shelters and recycles the rest into textiles. “When you don’t have one, and particularly for those that have more girls upstairs, your self esteem is just kind of gone. [When you have a bra], it really helps boost your self esteem. You look better in your clothes, you feel better, you don’t feel like you have to hide.”
Bras are something close to a universal woman experience. Some of us stared in wonder at our mothers wearing them when we were little girls, unable to comprehend that one day we’d wear them too. We received our first training bras before puberty hit, and remember with horror our first trip to Victoria’s Secret, when we had to bare our breasts to the saleswoman doing our first fitting. In high school many of us graduated from nude, lifeless bras to colorful ones that matched our moods or our outfits; as adult women, we finally discovered the joy of decent lace. These undergarments provide necessary support that prevent back injuries and help with our posture, but they also click us into something about being a woman that’s both taxing and good.
Part of this, of course: bras are incredibly expensive, prices averaging at the high end around $60 and on the low end at $15. For women who have next to nothing, bras are a luxury. If you can’t afford to buy dinner or pay rent, there’s no way you’re going to save your pennies to put towards a bra. Food, shelter and safety, have to be the priority.
That’s especially the case in women fleeing from domestic violence, according to Cindy Southworth of the National Network To End Domestic Violence. “When women are running for their lives, they will take time to grab the child’s favorite teddy bear or perhaps grab copies of the birth certificates or other important documents, but they often leave with nothing but the clothes on their back. They’re not taking time to pack or grab a couple of weeks worth of clothes including several bras,” Southworth said.
Women’s shelters have long recognized this need, but had to largely focus their resources on providing necessary support to help victims of domestic violence escape terrifying situations, go into hiding and rebuild their lives. With small budgets, there wasn’t much room to buy new clothes or bras for these women. As a result, a number of non-profit organizations and for-profit companies have stepped up and started bra donation drives. Southworth told me that the national lingerie chain Soma Intimates, in particular, has been partnering with the NNEDV since 2012 to get new and lightly used bras to more than 2,000 shelters across the country. Each January and July, for about five weeks at a time, Soma invites its customers to drop off new and used bras to its store to be sent to shelters, and they’ve collected more than a million bras to date, according to Southworth.
Your old bras could also be sent overseas to help women who were victims of sex trafficking regain control of their lives. The non-profit Free The Girls is able to provide job opportunities for women who have been rescued from sex trafficking in Africa and Central America by collecting gently used or new bras, shipping them overseas and allowing these women to sell them at markets or in shops. “Bras are a commodity in the developing world,” explains the program’s executive director Courtney Skiera-Vaughn. “They’re a niche market, so we provide the inventory for these women so they can become entrepreneurs. By selling bras, their clientele is only other women, which is awesome, as they’re trying to reintegrate and rehabilitate after their traumatic experiences.”
Free The Girls sorts the bras it receives in a collection facility stateside, and any it decides won’t sell abroad—because of color, size or condition—are sent to domestic violence shelters and women’s correctional facilities if they’re in good shape. If the bras are in bad condition, they’re sent to The Bra Recyclers, so that they can avoid being just another addition to the landfill. Birks-Mitchell explained that companies like hers are able to transform our worn-out bras into random things we’d never suspect, like the padding you find under your carpet. “Pretty much any kind of textile can be turned into other kinds of products. They’re broken down into basic components that can be shredded or the metal out of bras can be recycled,” Birks-Mitchell said.
Donating your bra can also help women who either currently have or survived breast cancer. There is a huge need for bras for women who have had mastectomies, as they oftentimes find themselves needing smaller sized bras than before or even facing the prospect of wearing prosthetics inserted into bras to replicate the appearance of the breasts they once had. Bras For A Cause is a really great volunteer-run organization that has been sending bras to shelters and other organizations to support women with breast cancer for the past five years. They’re always looking for donations.
The bras we’ve hoarded for years can help women around the world instead of just burning holes in our dresser drawers. Let’s do it—get off our asses, dig into our drawers, and donate our goddamn bras.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.